[Reading Room] The Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain

Twain’s story is beautifully written…Even with my Scottish accent I found myself being forced in to antiquated, Southern rhythms. Oh, to find such a natural voice in our own writing! So, how do we do that?

Mark TwainSometimes it’s good to go back to the classics, and today I bring you The Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain.

Read it online here

It’s the story of a dilettante prospector towards the end of the California Gold Rush. He’s not doing any serious prospecting; it’s just an excuse to get the narrator wandering through the setting. It’s a landscape of abandoned homes and deserted dreams. Only the narrator stumbles upon one well-maintained home in the midst of this ‘lonesome land’.

With that mystery planted in our minds, the narrator investigates, finding a middle-aged man who’s waiting for his new young wife to come back from visiting her family.

“She’s been gone two weeks today,” the homesteader tells our storyteller, who — intrigued by the homesteader’s extravagant praise of his wife — asks when she’s expected home. “This is Wednesday. She’ll be back Saturday, in the evening – about nine o’clock, likely.”

The story is full of these kinds of details, which make it seem so much more ‘real’ than it would be without them. She’s not just away, she’s away ‘visiting her folks’ who live ‘forty or fifty miles away’. She’s been gone “two weeks today” and is expected on Saturday “about nine o’clock”. They all tell of a man thinking about his wife, missing her, paying attention the way we do when we’re waiting for someone to come home.

Of course, nothing is exactly as it seems.

I’ve read enough stories like this that I spotted the twist coming, but really beautiful writing (and thinking) makes up for the fact that there are no truly original plots available.

And this is beautiful writing, with that unmistakable Twain voice. Try reading it out loud. Even with my Scottish accent I found myself being forced in to antiquated, Southern rhythms.

Oh, to find such a natural voice in our own writing!

So, how do we do that? I think it’s all down to confidence: confidence that you’re writing for one person, for your ideal reader, not for some editor or judging committee, for ‘everyone’, or for posterity.

Write to please one person (even if that person is yourself) and we’re likely to come up with such a strong, confident voice in our stories.

Read The Californian’s Tale online

[Reading Room] Incognito by Susan M. Lemere

I have a thing for stories written in letter form, so i was well-disposed towards Susan M. Lemere’s charming story Incognito before it even got rolling.

It starts with a teacher interceding on behalf of one of her students who has lost a tooth — literally lost it in the playground grass — and is inconsolable until the teacher promises to write a note to the Tooth Fairy. That would be the end of it, except that the tooth fairy responds. By email. And she has some advice for the teacher, herself.

As the story unfolds we learn more about Katherine, the teacher, and her life, and the changes she needs to make. Will she? Won’t she?

It is a subject that could be dreary or pedestrian, but Susan M. Lemere’s use of language, whimsy and humor keep it from being either of those things. I was, in no time at all, rooting for Katherine and enjoying listening to her voice portraying her various moods.

[Reading Room] There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

A house stands alone in a post-nuclear-strike landscape. It is one of those Tomorrowland kind of houses that people dreamed of in the 1950s: the stove is cooking eggs and bacon, the mice-robots are scurrying out to clean, the automatic systems are trying to entertain the absent occupants. Absent? Yes, and we find out what happened to those occupants in a shocking moment that is less shocking nowadays, because we’ve seen it before. But Bradbury was writing when these ideas and fears were new.

The story continues without a single human in it and yet it we come to know the former occupants of the house, their culture and also the character of the house.

Dig Deep And Find Your Unique Voice

Ray Bradbury’s writing is deeply poetic and thoroughly unique. It is a wonderful example of how you can find your voice only be being unapologetically yourself. Written by anyone else, this kind of lyrical writing would be overblown and possibly embarrassing. In Bradbury’s handling, it is just….well, Bradbury.

How To Write A Story Without A Human Protagonist

It’s also a wonderful example of how you can write a story without a traditional protagonist and yet still have a character.

In this story the house is definitely the protagonist, if a protagonist’s job is to guide us through a story and show us a new world in a new way. The house in this story is very much that protagonist. It tells us about the world that humanity has created for itself. It tells us what we have done to ourselves and points out the folly of the story’s human race: concentrating all its creative energies on making gadgets to make life comfortable instead of on solving the looming nuclear threat.

The story has secondary characters too: the family that lived in the house and the former household pet (who play the classic ‘secondary character role’ by being referenced in the story only when they contribute something to our understanding of the protagonist — in this case, the house).

Read the story online here.

[Tuesday Reading Room] The Door by E. B. White

E. B. White's image

After reading the first few lines of “The Door” by E. B. White [1. found in Fifty Great Short Stories, Milton Crane (Ed.)] my immediate feeling was one of outrage: here I am reading a story by the author of a book that has generations of writers in terror of writing something the ‘wrong’ way (The Elements of Style by Strunk & White), and it’s all over the place! White is breaking his own rules with flagrant , jaw-dropping abandon!

Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn’t. And everybody is somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid, or they were duroid (sani) or flexan (duro), but everything was glass (but not quite glass) and the thing that you touched (the surface, washable, crease-resistant) was rubber, only it wasn’t quite rubber and you didn’t quite touch it but almost.

OK, so there aren’t actually many disregarded rules there, apart from possibly some missing quotation marks – but still! What an odd and unbalancing opening that is.

And I loved it. Because the words are doing exactly what the writer intends to convey: they are confusing and disjointed and all out of kilter. They are slightly beyond comprehension. Just likethat we are in the same emotional space as the main character.

You couldn’t do this without a good command of the norms of writing, so perhaps E. B. White is exactly the right person to be writing this story!

Why The Story Works

This was a trying story on a first reading. I was never really sure what was going on, although I have my own ideas. It was like reading a stream-of-consciousness Beat poem.

But it hung together. It worked even though little in the story is explicit.

Some reasons it worked:

  • It was visceral. The writer takes us right inside the head of someone who is disorientated and out of step with the world. He keeps us off-kilter with his language. We are never explicitly told what is up with the main character (they way we may not know what’s up with ourselves when we are ‘out of sorts’). We do, however, feel what the character is feeling, through this helter-skelter narrative.
  • We are inside his head, though it is not all first-person. The story switches point of view without fanfare, so sometimes we are in first person and sometimes not (“Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the name of things”).
  • The author sets up a metaphor at the beginning, that of rats in a scientific experiment, “…trained to jump at a square card with the circle in the middle of it…”. It is a clear and coherent part of the story. He then takes this metaphor and alludes to it throughout the story, using the phrase ‘the one with the circle on it’ in various places to let us know he’s talking about frustrated expectations or unexpected changes — about life changing the rules, just when we’ve got the hang of them — whether or not we know what’s going on in the particular moment (and on a second reading, these moments become more clear).
  • The story (and the protagonist) travel somewhere. At the end, I’m still not exactly sure what is going on, but I know more than I did at the beginning. The protagonist is moving on.
  • The ending has a finality to it, a sense of actually being an ending. The author ties everything up in a bow by bringing back some metaphors from earlier in the story, the way a modern stand up comics will bring us back around to a joke from the start of their routine, before taking their bow.

This was an oddly satisfying story.

I think it is made more difficult by reading it at a time (and as part of a culture) very different from the the one in which it was written. Life was changing for the protagonist in ways that reflected the times. Now, 70+ years later, it’s hard to catch all the cultural allusions (without studying more deeply).

The style feels very modern (or possibly “Modern”) in its form and ambition. In fact, I was stunned to find it was originally published in 1939. I think it would still prove a bit too avant garde for many readers.

But it was anything but boring.

 

Writer’s Tips

If you are uninspired by a story that you are writing, maybe it’s because you are sticking too closely to the rules, to a formula.

Try taking a leaf out of E. B. White’s book and mess with your readers a bit.

  • Try a different style.
  • Say less — or more.
  • Drop the dialogue attributions.
  • Throw out the quotation marks.
  • Write run-on sentences — or write in fragments.
  • Tell the story out of order.
  • Try to make your language sound less like you and more like the inside of your character’s head. Let the words race, if your character is running; or make them lugubrious if she is weary.
  • Allow yourself to take some chances.

After all, words are just squiggles on a page, and even the most experimental squiggles can be erased and re-written.

Take some chances in your writing today.

Read it online here


Did you try any new techniques after reading this? Leave a comment (and a link, if you’re daring) and let us know what worked – or didn’t.